University of Mississippi
A monument to James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. Meredith was the first Black American admitted to Ole Miss. He went on to become a civil rights leader (Wikimedia Commons).

In 2019, the state of Mississippi provided the University of Mississippi, affectionately known as “Ole Miss,” about $245 million to support the education of 22,500 students. Divide those numbers, and you get roughly $10,900 per student, to which Ole Miss added tuition revenues in similar amounts and earnings from a $775 million endowment. Seventy-seven percent of Ole Miss undergraduates are white. 

The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal— And How to Set Them Right by Adam Harris Ecco Press, 267 pp.

That same year, Mississippi gave Jackson State University, a historically Black institution with a student body of 6,600, about $43 million, or $6,500 per student. Jackson State’s endowment is $60 million. Three percent of its students are white. 

$10,900 and $6,500. $775 million and $60 million. Seventy-seven percent and 3 percent. Keep those numbers in mind, because they are the end of the story that Adam Harris, a staff writer at The Atlantic, tells in his vital, searing new book, The State Must Provide. 

The book is a corrective to the standard triumphalist narrative of racial progress that remains dominant in our culture, and goes something like this:

“A long time ago, America was founded with slavery, which was very bad, as was the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision. We fought a civil war, which produced the very good Fourteenth Amendment, which was sadly interpreted in the very bad Plessy v. Ferguson decision that established the principle of ‘separate but equal,’ until the Supreme Court ruled—unanimously!—in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation was unconstitutional. There was some foot dragging over the next decade involving standing in schoolhouse doors, etc., but now education is open to all. As for colleges, Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, which created some great big salt-of-the-earth universities with terrific football teams, then Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the GI Bill, which, along with Pell Grants and student loans, means people can afford colleges. Those colleges are definitely not racist, because racism and segregation are the same thing, and segregation is illegal. The end.” 

Harris has written a history of American higher education that begins in the decades before the Civil War and finishes in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. If there’s one thing you should take away from The State Must Provide, it is that the nation’s power structures did not want to give Black people an equal opportunity for higher education then, and they do not want to give Black people an equal opportunity for higher education now. The degree of discrimination has diminished. The principle remains. 

Harris begins with the abolitionist founders of Berea College in Kentucky, who took seriously the biblical admonition that God hath made of one blood all nations of men. “Nearly as soon as the school was built” to educate both Black and white students in 1855, Harris writes, “it was burned to the ground by slaveholders and their supporters . . . They built another school farther south in Pulaski County, Kentucky. It was burned as well.” In the next place, “they were run out of town by a mob.” The mobs and beatings continued for years. 

Around the same time, the land-grant college movement was blossoming, with motives that weren’t always as tidy as they now seem. America was in the middle of an industrial revolution that would make it the most powerful economy in the world, and advocates rightly believed that giving states the proceeds of federal land sales to establish new universities focused on practical training would be a boon to the economy. Some northern politicians also wanted to solve the problem of slavery by deporting enslaved people to Africa or Central America, which would have created a sudden shortage of skilled labor. New colleges devoted to educating white men in the agricultural and mechanical arts offered a solution. 

Some states, like Iowa, allowed Black people to enroll in their land-grant universities. Others, mostly in the South but also in Missouri, Ohio, Delaware, West Virginia, and Maryland, refused. When the land-grant colleges came back to Congress for more money in 1890, segregationist states were allowed to evade a prohibition against racial discrimination in admissions by establishing separate and allegedly equal universities, a philosophy ratified by Plessy a few years later. This led to the creation of more than a dozen new institutions to educate Black students, away from their white peers and subject to the whims of men like the future Mississippi governor who said, of “the Negro,” in 1899, “their education only spoils a good field hand.” 

The 1890 land-grant universities would become some of America’s most prominent Black institutions. To this day, they graduate sizable numbers of doctors, lawyers, scientists, and other Black professionals. But they were hamstrung by inadequate funding from the beginning. The “equal” part of “separate but equal” was only a pretense for institutional racism in a new form. 

At this point, Harris has established two themes. First, the history of American higher education proceeded on the same oppressive, grudging path of partial liberation that other institutions charted; Brown was neither a panacea for educational ills nor the end of the story. Second, every delayed and inadequate step forward toward educational equality has been met with violence and bad faith. 

Brown occupies such a central place in the popular historical imagination that one can easily complete an entire public education without learning that many of the case’s precursor legal battles were fought over college campuses. The lengths some states went to protect white students from proximity to Black peers would be absurd if they weren’t so tragic. We meet people like Lloyd Gaines, who wanted to attend law school in his home state of Missouri, became all but destitute as the state’s refusal resulted in years of litigation, and finally walked out of his apartment one day before the court could rule, never to be seen again. Court cases like Gaines’s continued long past Brown, demonstrating the chasm between a ruling in Washington and de facto inequality.

The nation’s power structures did not want to give Black people an equal opportunity for higher education then, and they do not want to give Black people an equal opportunity for higher education now. The degree of discrimination has diminished. The principle remains.

“Discrimination is a contortionist,” Harris writes, “bending and twisting until it fits within the confines of the system it is given.” The later chapters of The State Must Provide describe how the twisting continues in the present day. In addition to court decisions going back to the early 1950s, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited universities that received federal funds from engaging in racial discrimination. States like Mississippi continued to discriminate in funding, hiring, and admissions anyway. Mississippi State, the state’s original land-grant university, didn’t hire its first Black professor until 1967. Funding per student at Black universities was far lower than at white-dominated institutions. In 1975, there were no Black administrators at Ole Miss. That year, a veteran Mississippi civil rights activist named Jake Ayers filed suit on behalf of his son, Jake Jr., a student at Jackson State. 

The parties negotiated in arbitration for 12 years, during which time the state offered “solutions” like increasing funding for one historically Black university by shutting another one down. Ayers Sr. passed away. The plaintiffs went back to court, lost at trial, lost on appeal, and in 1991 finally reached the Supreme Court, where Justice Antonin Scalia asserted during oral arguments that equally funding historically Black universities would be bad for the cause of desegregation, because it would discourage Black students from applying to white-dominated
universities that had, until recently, refused to admit them.

Scalia was the lone dissent the following year when the Court ruled for the plaintiffs. But as we know from those 2019 per-student funding numbers for Jackson State and Ole Miss, the decision did not result in equal funding. Another decade passed. A settlement was reached that provided more money, but not nearly enough. Historically Black colleges in Mississippi are still underfunded, and the settlement expires next year. State legislators facing judicial mandates for fair education funding are much the same as Taliban fighters, while judges are like occupying American troops. As local Afghan elders would tell the Americans, “You have the watches, but they have the time.”

This is not just a problem in the South. Mississippi’s legacy of racism may be especially flagrant, but compare Ohio State and Central State, or the University of Maryland and Bowie State, or UCLA and Cal State LA, or UT Austin and UT El Paso, and you will find that the public universities serving the most Black and brown students never get as much public support as flagship universities flush with federal research funding, endowment earnings, and political capital. 

While writing The State Must Provide, Harris called the U.S. Department of Education and asked if its Office for Civil Rights was actively monitoring what any reasonable person would conclude is racially centered higher education inequality in Mississippi—or, for that matter, anywhere else. The cause of enforcing Black students’ constitutional rights to equal protection has fallen so far from national prominence that the department, then helmed by Betsy DeVos, had to go check, and came back with a small list that does not include Mississippi at all. 

Could that change? Progressive politics have been greatly energized in recent years by the cause of increasing college affordability and reducing student debt. As many scholars and activists have noted, free college and debt forgiveness would disproportionately help Black students, who are more likely to take out large student loans and often struggle to repay them. Congress is now considering President Biden’s proposal to eliminate tuition at community colleges, which are historically under-resourced and in many states serve large nonwhite populations—though the provision could be on the chopping block. States that have given their two-year institutions few resources in the past would be obligated to match the new federal dollars and bring their state funding up to par. 

Segregation led to the creation of more than a dozen new institutions to educate Black students, away from their white peers and subject to the whims of men like the future Mississippi governor who said, of “the Negro,” in 1899, “their education only spoils a good field hand.”

Racial preferences in admissions policies have helped increase Black enrollment at some white-dominant selective universities. But, as Harris notes, the Supreme Court outlawed the redress of historical discrimination as a justification for affirmative action in 1978. And there just aren’t that many selective universities in the grand scheme of things—admissions preferences don’t help colleges that are open to students from diverse academic backgrounds and enroll students who are mostly Black to begin with. 

Many states also provide less money to public K–12 schools that serve Black communities, resulting in fewer students graduating with the test scores that selective universities demand, or with the skills that help people succeed in college-level work and earn a degree. The Biden administration has called for a new federal program that would require states to make their K–12 funding systems more equitable, a new fund to improve college completion, and tens of billions of additional dollars for historically Black colleges and institutions that educate many Latino students. While all of this is subject to the mysteries of congressional negotiation, the federal government is actively interested in filling some of the funding void that states, through deliberate action and malign neglect, have created.

American history has always been driven by the hope that we can achieve racial justice while avoiding racial consciousness, that reconciliation can be swift and reparation evaded, that if we wait long enough, maybe people will finally give it a rest, move forward, and stop going on about things that happened years ago. 

Yet the past has a way of persisting, especially in colleges and universities, which seem particularly bound to their origins. Berea College, which charges no tuition and serves first-generation Appalachians, is steadily moving back to the mission of serving all nations that was shut down more than a century ago by mob rule and state law. (And the college is a perennial top performer in the Washington Monthly’s college guide and rankings, earning the top spot for “Best Bang for Your Buck” colleges in the South in 2021.) Meanwhile, at Ole Miss, where anti-desegregation riots in the 1960s resulted in gunfire, violence, and death, Black enrollment is in decline. 

In The State Must Provide, Adam Harris vividly shows that we are still living our poisoned legacy of denying Black people the education that all Americans are due. Until we own that history fully, injustice will continue. Understanding the story is a good place to start.

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Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America.